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Wheels greased for debt gridlock

Shortly before he left office, CNBC asked former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg what America might look like down the road if it failed to get its debt under control. “Greece,” the New Hampshire Republican replied.

“This nation is on a course where if we don’t do something about it, get the federal situation, the fiscal policy (under control), we’re Greece. We’re a banana republic,” Gregg said.

Whatever you might think of Gregg’s conservative positions, his views on fiscal policy were as respected as anyone’s when he was in the senate.

And with the recurring dance between Republicans and Democrats to raise the country’s debt ceiling set to recommence this fall, both sides would do well to heed his warning.

Already the political posturing suggests they won’t.

Some Republicans made it known last week that they’ll seek to hold the debt-ceiling hostage unless lawmakers agree to strip funding for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

According to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, “Sen. Richard M. Burr on Thursday took aim at conservatives who have threatened to shut down the federal government if the 2010 health care law is not defunded, calling it the ‘dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.’”

Burr, who made his comments to Public Radio International, is not exactly a liberal stalwart. He’s a North Carolina Republican who has been vocal in his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and in this particular instance he’s right. The ACA isn’t going anywhere until Republicans gain control of the House, Senate and White House. Using the debt-ceiling to try to leverage its repeal represents a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money.

Other Republicans want to tie passage of the debt-ceiling measure to much deeper cuts in federal spending. The president and Democrats in Congress want Republicans to just shut up and raise the ceiling so the government can continue to pay its bills, though the president has signaled that he’s open to suggestions.

It would be nice if Republicans would stop tilting at windmills, get over the fact that they lost the vote on Obamacare and acknowledge that funding the government means more than just paying for military operations. Sometimes they have to hold their noses and say yes.

And Democrats should realize that, with a $16.7 trillion debt, federal spending at historical levels is unrealistic and, more importantly, unsustainable. Between spending on domestic programs, entitlements and defense, it inevitable that a day of reckoning is coming.

What’s at stake is more than just whether we repeat the 1995 showdown that resulted in the temporary shutdown of the federal government, which is one possible consequence if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling in a timely fashion. (Ask Newt Gingrich how that worked out for Republicans.)

The greater issue is whether we, as a country, will continue to control our own destiny as something resembling a fiscal superpower, or whether we’ll lurch and stumble along in a perpetual state of gridlock, devolving into something less.

We don’t have to end up like Greece, but let’s not pretend that getting our country’s house in order is going to be easy or that any political faction – including the electorate – is less culpable than any other. Because, as the late Sen. Warren B. Rudman once said, “The blame for (the national debt) lies with the Congress and the president, with Democrats and Republicans alike, most all of whom have been unwilling to make the hard choices or to explain to the American people that there is no such thing as a free lunch.”